Beth Tweddle: Toxteth teenager takes aim at Russian queen

Beth Tweddle is a phenomenon in British gymnastics but her chance of Athens gold may depend on her upstaging perhaps the most innovative performer in history
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Beth Tweddle

Beth Tweddle

Age: 19

Born: Johannesburg

Reigning British champion, 2003 world bronze medallist

For a girl who stands on the threshold of the greatest-ever Olympic achievement by a British gymnast, Beth Tweddle is one cool cookie.

She was 13 when she broke her left foot so badly that it not only required immediate surgery - and several subsequent operations - but threatened her sporting future. The injury was sustained during the warm-up for the floor finals at the British Championships in 1998.

"It was the medial malleolus," she explains, pointing to the criss-cross of scars on the knobbly bone on the outside of her left ankle. "I don't actually remember it hurting. I was up for four finals and I was more gutted about missing out on those."

She received the standard treatment for her condition: removal of bone fragment and the fixation of the fracture with metal pins. Except in her case, the pins began to twist her bone the wrong way, meaning she could not bend her joint, and the pins were removed in 1999. The recovery was long - indeed ongoing - which makes her success even more remarkable.

The teenager from Bunbury in Cheshire, whose training base is in a back street in Liverpool's Toxteth, has since hit heights never matched on these shores. Last year she won the bronze medal at the world championships on the asymmetric bars, her favourite equipment. In May this year she claimed the European silver in the same discipline, behind Russia's Svetlana Khorkina, the multi-Olympic and world title-winning champion. The latter success was the best result by a Briton in major competition.

Next comes the ultimate challenge, in Greece, which will mark Tweddle's first and probably last Olympics. She only turned 19 in April, yet is a serious contender to win Britain's first individual gymnastics Olympic medal.

She could do so in an intriguing bars final where Khorkina, 25, will be looking for a hat-trick of Olympic golds on the apparatus and Tweddle, the down-to-earth pretender to the ice maiden's throne, will be out to deny her.

Balance could yet prove key, and not just in the narrow sense that Tweddle spends her working life poised on a beam, or performing marvels on the bars and vault, or flipping, with powerful precision and grace through her floor routine.

"I don't really feel any great pressure," she said this week, after her formal selection as the spearhead of the British gymnastics team for Athens. "People have started talking about weight of history, becoming Britain's first individual gymnastic Olympic medallist, but that's not something I'm dwelling on.

"Amanda [Kirby, her coach, who gained a creditable 17th-place finish for Britain at the 1984 Olympics] keeps me realistic. You know, I've got to do my job first and foremost, because if I'm not doing that properly, I'm not going to get anywhere."

Such is the unassuming calm, which belies not just her years but also Tweddle's at times agonising journey to the top.

The obvious question is: "But doesn't the ankle hurt, even now, when putting such sustained pressure, from landings and dismounts, on it?"

The answer is immediately apparent from the expressions on the faces of a couple of Tweddle's British team-mates, who are sitting nearby in the cavernous hall at the Liverpool Gymnastics Club, listening. They wince and nod instinctively, almost in admiration, even though they haven't been asked.

"Yes," says Tweddle, her reply as light as air. "Some people would say it's the end. But not me. I love what I do."

To assume from this that she is so driven that she damns the consequences would be wrong. Everything else about her suggests she has a no-nonsense, easy-going approach to life.

Her mum, Ann, a bookseller, and dad, Jerry, who works for ICI, are not pushy sporting parents. Just as Beth's brother, James, became an England Under-21 hockey player through a hobby that he proved good at, so Beth found gymnastics through a need to burn off energy.

"I was a hyperactive child, always jumping on the beds, climbing the walls," she says. "Mum just thought I needed to channel my energy so I tried swimming, ballet, horse riding, but after going to gymnastics at the local sports centre in Crewe, aged seven, I got into that."

Tweddle's sport, while demanding, is not all-consuming. She realises her career is finite and she will "probably be too old, at 23, especially with the ankle" to attend the Chinese Olympics in 2008. She has a place at John Moores University in Liverpool this September to read sports science, a precursor to a physiotherapy conversion course.

Her training ethos is rooted in hard work and common sense. She trains six hours a day, six days a week. She eats well, but is no demon to fads. Yoghurt, cereal and toast comprise a typical breakfast. Lunch might be pie or lasagne. Dinner is often salad or soup. She takes no supplements. "They're not worth the risk."

She lives with her parents and could never be described as independently wealthy. Funding from the Lottery via the world-class performance programme runs to thousands of pounds, not tens of thousands. Panasonic assist with kit and the odd electronic goody.

Only in her sporting prowess does Tweddle stand out as gifted beyond her fair share, a fact that first came to national prominence when she won Commonwealth gold on the bars in 2002, and silver in the team event.

In Athens, all eyes will be on her stunning bars routine, which has its genesis in the years when she was unable to put any pressure on her left foot, and hence spent most of her training time doing bars work as the only alternative conditioning.

"At this stage my preparations are about cleaning up my starts and turns," Tweddle says, after talking through a bewildering array of moves including the healy, the hecht, the Gienger and Markelov (the latter two are named after the gymnasts from the 1970s who pioneered them). "But when I'm performing, I'm on autopilot. As soon as you present to the judges it's always the same. Automatic."

The two most recent big occasions came firstly in June, when Britain took on Russia (minus Khorkina, who stayed away) in a friendly in Liverpool, and then earlier this month, at the British Championships.

Tweddle won gold on the bars in the friendly and was runner-up on the beam. On the first day of that competition (team day), she had the highest individual score across all apparatus, leaving Elena Zamolodchikova, who won Olympic gold on the floor and vault at Sydney, in second. At the nationals, Tweddle won her fourth successive all-around title.

In Athens, she would like nothing better than to help her team to thrive in the first day of competition. Everyone competes in all disciplines - floor, vault, beam and bars - and the highest-scoring nation, on aggregate, wins. But it is the individual finals, which are reached via performances in the team event, where Tweddle can really leave her mark on the international stage. The bars final is realistically her big target.

"Beth knows what she wants and she won't give up before she achieves it," says Kirby. "She is ambitious to bring everything she does to its ultimate best. Beth does not just want to win competitions, she wants to become the best gymnast that Britain has ever had."

Tweddle would probably never say that in such a forthright manner. She's too calm for that kind of talk. And that might just be her making.